My hands run through the pasadizo, a rectangular weaving the Andean women wear across their back. The yarn, made of alpaca, feels soft; yet at the same time, the tight weaving lends it strength. The edges curve up slightly. I think about its creator – the hand which dyed each bundle of yarn, the colors of which are all natural, like carcass of beetle (red), or plant fungus (turquoise). I think about each individual weave being made, row by row, as patterns and designs emerge. It felt repetitive but meticulous. It felt overwhelming. It felt precious.
“They can tell who created each piece,” Kaitlyn says. “There is a distinct signature to each weave found in the patterns and in the choice of symbols.”
“Just like a painting,” I interpret; Kaitlyn nods.
Kaitlyn Bohlin is a program director at Awamaki, a group that aims to preserve the art of weaving in a sustainable manner. Based in the small town Ollantaytambo, Peru, a stop off place for trekkers en route to Machu Picchu, “awamaki” means weaving hands in Quechua, the language spoken by the inhabitants of the Andes mountains. While their store is located in Ollantaytambo, they work from the mountain villages of Patacancha and Parobamba. These villages are incredibly remote, located at very high-altitudes. At this time of the year, though, the road up is washed out by landslides. The next visit won’t be possible until the wet season passes.
A single piece of weaving can take a month to finish. This is because most weavers are women, who have to spend a significant amount of their time attending to family duties – cooking, feeding, making fires, or planting potatoes in the field. The Andean weaving is done with a back-strap loom. This is a portable device which the women can carry on their backs, allowing them to gather with other women, where they can work together and socialize. However, most of the weaving is still done at home, and it can be quite the family activity – the child may unwind the yarn, and the father help to stretch it across the loom.
Not until I am on my way back to North America do I learn that the Andean weavings are more than just paintings. Karen Lizarraga, who sits next to me as I’m flying out of Lima, is a professor at the University of Lima, and spent many years undertaking archeology projects in the ancient Andean culture of Ayacucho, not too far from Ollantaytambo.
“They are narratives,” Karen tells me.
So they are knowledge and stories, weaved onto pasadizos, belts and scarves. They narrate the ethics of the Andean people, their belief in mother earth, and medicinal knowledge about plants and healing. One particular piece that Karen studied told a story of feminine ethics; a story of resistance against the seduction of the mountain spirit, Wamani. She also told me about the unkunakuchka, a pervasive symbol found not only in weaving but on numerous Andean relics. It is a depiction of two birds conjoined at the mouth – a symbol of nurturing, of motherly or fatherly love. For those who recognize it, their reaction is instinctual, and one that is full of meaning.
As the cabin lights on the plane are dimmed by the crew, I lean back into my seat and wonder how many more layers there are to unveil within this rich heritage of weaving. What other messages are hidden in the weaves, lost in translation as their storytellers pass away? For the fate of the art of weaving hangs perilously in the balance, caught between its ancient roots and an uncertain future. I’m encouraged, though, that organizations like Awamaki exist, actively preserving a dying art in a shrinking culture. And that there are archaeologists like Karen, who dedicate their lives in search of the missing layers of meaning, which would otherwise be lost in the passing of generations.
Participate in our Jolkona campaign for Awamaki here.
Read more about the narratives in the weaving by Karen Lizarraga here.